“Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie” (the footprints of the Dukes of Savoie) TDS
A 145 kilometre ultramarathon, the second longest in the UTMB series, from Courmayeur in Italy around Mont Blanc to Chamonix in France. A mere 9100 metres of climbing and descending on some of the most technical of trails in the world. What had I gotten myself into!
After completing the seven sisters in Donegal, I trained for three weeks, keeping things short and sharp and really just minding myself, staying healthy and strong. This involved plenty core work and a focus on balance and strength. I hoped to run a pain free race, in comparison to carrying injury throughout in 2018.
I ate as normal and stayed away, as much as possible from sugar and very little beer or crappy food. Arriving at that start line feeling healthy was my number one goal, everything after that I will explain in my summary of what turned out to be one hell of a race in so many ways! It is impossible to remember it all well and I hope I can give you a small insight into running in the Alps.
Arriving in the gorgeous Chamonix on Sunday I met up with my crew for the event. It is impossible to stress, for me anyhow, how important a crew is. This event would prove me right in this regard. Sinead and Kieron once again joining to help, and spend the week in one of their favourite places (chamonix during UTMB week!). My parents were on holidays in France again in the campervan and drove all the way to Chamonix to support me, and my sister Lisa arrived on Tuesday before the race started at 4am on Wednesday. Absolute legends all 5 of you, and boy did I feel lucky to have one of the biggest crews in the race!
Monday was a rest, sleep and eat day and Tuesday, registration, meeting some of the other Irish athletes and getting the head ready for what lay ahead. I met up with our lead Tailwind ambassador Ryan Hogben and it was great to meet him in person after a long time talking online. I got to bed around 8pm and was up again at 1.30am to get ready for a 2.15am bus to Courmayeur for the start. Around 1750 runners made their way to the start line, over 900 of whom wouldn’t make the finish. Let the war of attrition start !
Kit. I ran in my Salomon s-labs, wore Salomon bag with mandatory kit and 2 x 500ml soft flasks filled with Tailwind, a singlet (better in a t-shirt in future) and of course my Black Diamond poles on my hip belt. Keep the kit simple and as light as possible. Mandatory kit includes the waterproofs and thermal gear so it isn’t a super light pack but I don’t really notice it anymore.
The nerves weren’t close to as bad as last year and I soaked it all up as Dee and Lisa hung out along the barrier by my side. Runners from all corners of the world gathered in the dark in Cormayeur We had decided that Dee and Lisa would crew at the first big aid station, Bourg Saint Maurice at 50km, and from there Sinead and Kieron would take over for the 90 km Beaufort stop and the 121 km Les Contamines stop. This would give the crews time to rest and make their days a little easier. The route can be seen below, giving you some idea of the map and the types of climbs involved.
So as I begin to tell this story, almost 2 weeks after the race, it is very hard to explain how I have felt since this race. It was the hardest race of my life, no doubt, and the fact that it has taken me two full weeks to get my head around things in order to write a little, says it all. Most races I am itching to write, this one had me thinking about myself and my future in the sport, leaving me with some very confused feelings that I will try to portray to you in the following paragraphs.
The gun went off in Courmayeur at 4.01am and I squeezed my way into the top 200 runners, or thereabouts. We ran down the street of Courmayeur where supporters lined up in their hundreds. From here we turned towards the mountains and the climbing began almost instantly. I had the poles out after about 10 minutes and settled into a steady climb. It was dark for the first few hours and we basically climbed in a massive chain to the first checkpoint at Checrouit and from here we kept climbing to about 2500 metres. There was a sharp downhill from here down into a valley and up to the checkpoint at Lac Combal, where I realised I was already ahead of time but hadn’t pushed hard at all. The daylight had arrived and the sunrise around the steep peaks surrounding the valley were spectacular. I heard my first sound of cow bells in the valley below. This would become a familiar sound as the day went by. At Lac Combal I stopped for a toilet break and managed to eat some fruit and a few bits of cake. In hindsight, I probably should of eaten more early on..
The next section saw a sharp climb to 2600 metres at Col Chavannes. The views here were possibly the most amazing of the entire course with mountains rising into the sky and the valleys below glistening in the early sunshine, which was already heating up a bit. After Col Chavannes I tucked away the poles and got myself ready for a long downhill. It went on and on and on for almost 20 km. Not steep but relentless. I held back as much as I could. I found myself still passing a good few people while one or two runners flew by me, going way to fast for this early on in a race of such magnitude. I would see most of these runners in some format or another later on. I began to recognise maybe 10 runners that would mix and match for about 60 km or so. It began to feel lonely already at 35 km as I realised that very few of the runners spoke english or were up for much chat. This was turning into the pointy end of the race, as I found out as I arrived at Bourg Saint Maurice at 51 km. I had enjoyed the majority of the first 50km, apart from that very long downhill section. I was climbing well, my stomach was good, but it had started heating up alot and the downhills were fast, meaning the body was taking a beating. The mental battle had begun, one third of the way into the race. Physically I was in super shape, but the thoughts of another 100km crept in. I know myself how to deal with tough mental battles but something was taking over in my head and I knew I had a mission ahead!
Dee and Lisa were super in Bourg Saint Maurice and after a mandatory kit check, I left the aid station in good spirits, although roasted!
I really enjoyed my ginger cake and the fact Lisa informed me I was currently in 153rd position gave me a morale boost. The crowds of supporters and atmosphere here were amazing also.
The next section from 51 to about 72 km included a few absolutely brutal climbs and it was getting warm. I knew the make or break section of the race was basically from 50 to 90 km. This included 2 climbs totalling about 1500 metres and a long descent to Col de Roselend. Lisa and Dee were there to see me and I was flying on this descent, feeling really good. Dee ran over the hill beside me towards the aid station and my heart was in my mouth thinking she could have a fall watching me while trying to sprint over the hill! The climbs were really tough but I was going well and eating as much as I could. I was drinking like a fish and just about staying hydrated. The climb from Bourg Saint Maurice for 6km was over 1300 metres of up and had been the toughest so far but I had taken it reasonably easy and being at 70 km or half way in just over 10 hours and lying in 122 position, you could say all was going to plan.
After Col de Roselend there was yet another mammoth climb and the day was warm at this point. Another 10 km and roughly 2 hours later I was at about 80 km and was beginning to feel crap. As you can see I was averaging 5 km/hr and I was exhausted, a little dizzy, unable to eat, and the climbing was getting slower by the minute. I felt ok on the downhills but the minute I went above 2000 metres I was out of breath and my heart was pounding in my chest. That 10 km had taken me to La Gittaz where a few runners were lying and sitting trying to recover a little. I kept moving as I realised another 10 km and I would be at Beaufort, it would be about 7pm and the night would bring cool air and maybe a new me.
The following 11km included a climb from 1664 metres to 2236 metres and then a descent of 8 km to 739 metres in Beaufort. A descent of over 1500 metres was an absolute head melter. I reckon looking back on it, that the pounding the body gets on these downhills was what upset my system and was the main reason I felt so poorly on arrival at Beaufort. I wanted to eat but couldn’t. The fact that you are going up and down to altitude probably has a bearing but all in all I think it’s the pounding and the amount of concentration involved in the sheer technicality of these descents. Boulders, loose rock, gravel, sand, trees and roots from the trees. All this for every descent, most of which were 6km plus. It takes a toll and at 91 km I thought I was beaten. I stayed in the aid station for 50 minutes and in this time I only ate, two small pots of sorbet (kindly found by Kieron) and a bowl of soup with noodles. I ran into the bathroom, overheating for a mini puke and got a full medical check over by the doctor a little after that. To my amazement in the 50 minutes I was sitting down I jumped from something like 105th position to 96th. Runners were dropping like flies. They were asleep in the corners, on beds, getting medical checks and hopping on buses back to Chamonix.
I can honestly say that in my few years ultrarunning this was the closest I have come to a DNF. I felt awful. But Sinead talked to me and told me once medics were happy, I was ok. Having someone there at this point was crucial. The fact that Sinead had Ultra experience and I trusted her judgement was huge. I said I would try and get to the next checkpoint and see how things were then. This after a little ly down with my legs in the air to try feel a little bit better!
A 500 metre climb and about 8 km of distance would get me to Hauteluce. I bumped into a Bulgarian guy on the way and he was suffering from the exact same symptoms as me. We hiked slowly on the uphills, sitting down a few times to try and breath. He was falling asleep while running but we kept each other moving and ran the downhill sections really well. I normally pick things up well at night but the 8 km took two hours and my pace had slowed significantly. I met Sinead down the road from Hautleluce and she said I looked better. I told her I would stick with my new friend and we would help eachother knock out the next big climb to Col de Very and from there up to Col du Joly. At Col de Very I had to say goodbye to my new friend, who had been running in the top 50 earlier in the race, as he hopped into the aid station van for a 20 minute nap. It had gotten dangerous on the descent to this checkpoint as he was falling asleep while running beside a cliff!
On I went, alone again, but I started to run well. The climbs were slow but I felt a little better and even though the humidity of the night meant I was sweating all the time, I felt a little bit of energy returning. The night was clear with stars as bright as I’ve ever seen and the dots of headlights on far away hills showed me that I was still running in a super position and I needed to keep those positive thoughts flowing. I thought Col du Joly would never arrive but at 20.41 I arrived and would mostly descend from there to Les Contamines Montjoie. Over 11km of a descending. Once again this felt rough on the body , but I had no muscle pains. At the end of the descent there was a long, long flat section along by a river that wound its way around the town before arriving at Les Contamines Montjoie. I actually opened up the legs a bit and ran this section well, realising I was turning a corner at this point and the bad feelings were starting to disappear.
Sinead was happy to see me in better spirits and after eating and a quick toilet break I decided to move quickly and start the next climb. “I’m not stopping you, I’m actually asking you to get up and leave, you have this”. were Sineads words. There were two sections to the next climb. A huge steep section that must of taken 40 minutes to ascend followed by an even steeper climb up to the Col de Tricot at 2105 metres. This was an absolute killer climb. I sat down twice to try and get my breathing down and eat something. I failed but managed to keep drinking coke and water and at the top I knew that was my last really big one in the bag. Nine or so Carrauntoohill Mountains under the belt in one sitting, most of which started at the same height as the top of this very mountain! I looked back into the night and down the vast steep trail of switchbacks I had just climbed. The headlights dotted the landscape, all moving at my slow pace at this point. I was passed by a few and I managed to overtake a few runners throughout the last few hours, but I wasn’t too concerned about placing, it was all about surviving. That last climb was probably my slowest ever with my pace around 2.96km/hr. But I was at the top in about 2 hours and 30 minutes from Les Contamines and it was 4.30 in the morning. I had just bagged a PB for my longest over run, over 130 km and with a 9km descent to Bellevue and then Les Houches, I was on the home stretch. At this point I just wanted to keep the legs moving and a top 100 finish would be a super bonus. I ran the downhill well again and had the privilege of high fiving two mailboxes as I arrived into Les Houches, convinced they were two kids out on the course. Yep I was tiring! I arrived in Les Houches in 26 hours and 9 minutes and would turn the corner after a reasonably flat 8 km along the river in Chamonix just over an hour later. This section was probably the most enjoyment I had all day. That was after I tried to eat some cake in Les Houches and ended up vomiting under a tree for a minute or two as the system rejected food once more!
I ran a steady pace into Chamonix and the streets were quiet as I arrived. Some runners were out for a morning stroll and clapped me on. I saw the finishing street and there was Lisa, Sinead, Kieron, Dee and Pat all waiting to cheer me in. I grabbed the Irish Flag from Lisa, a tradition in UTMB to show where you are from and ran across the line to what was more a massive relief that anything. You are so tired it is hard to say how amazing it feels but knowing I came so close to not finishing was what gave me this relief. I was in 92nd out of 1091 finishers, 81st Senior male and in a time of 27.11.
Not too shabby for one hell of an adventure, not only for the body but most definitely for the mind.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, I was confused as to what this race did to me as a runner. I realise now how far I can go and maybe even further. I realise the mental battle often talked about and how it is hell to be as low as you get but is bliss when you pull yourself out of these lows and finish. I feel now like I am more motivated than ever to trail run, I feel it is a bigger part of my life in so many ways than it was even a year ago, I feel so lucky to be able to compete and complete such events as TDS and lets hope I can stay healthy and fit for years to come to enjoy it this much. Thanks to everyone that encouraged me and followed the progress throughout. I know a few of you were glued to it. Hopefully there will be plenty more to come.
The biggest thanks obviously goes to the crew. Ye were what made this one possible.